December 30, 2012; Denver, CO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs guard Russ Hochstein (66) during the first half against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

New England Patriots Offense and Free Agency: What's Next?

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Jan 20, 2013; Foxboro, Massachusetts, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) sits on the turf after not being able to convert on a fourth down during the fourth quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

After the initial rush of the NFL free-agency period following the weeks of buildup, guesses, rumors and hope, things have settled down as the big names and big money are off the board, and teams turn their attention to the upcoming NFL Draft.  With many teams at or near their cap maximum (or what they’re willing to pay), there are still hundreds of players looking for an opportunity at what will likely be a discounted rate.  Any further moves in free agency on offense by the New England Patriots are going to be carefully weighed based upon need, draft options, player value (are they getting a deal or bargain), position depth, quality of the player, quantity on the market, and especially the player’s fit on the team, both on the field and off.  The offensive side of the ball is on the current agenda, with the defense to follow shortly:

August 27, 2011; Detroit, MI, USA; New England Patriots rookie quarterback Ryan Mallet (15) looks to throw during the second half against Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports


QUARTERBACK:

The Patriots do not have a lot of need at quarterback this off-season with future Hall-of-Famer Tom Brady re-upped for the foreseeable future. Carrying only back-up quarterback Ryan Mallet shows the trust coach Bill Belichick has in the young, raw, rifle-armed product of  the University of Arkansas.  Perhaps the only need will come about for a back-up if a quarterback needy team cannot get the player they want in the draft and overwhelm the Patriots front-office with an offer for backup quarterback Ryan Mallet. In that case, there remains a hodge-podge of veteran cast-offs (Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich, Brady Quinn, and Dan Orlovsky), once intriguing back-ups (Caleb Hanie, Kellen Clemens and Vince Young) and possibly, if healthy, Matt Leinart. In desperation, Leinart could be a young, veteran, talented pick-up to back-up Tom Brady as his USC teammate and back-up Matt Cassell once did in New England.  Most likely option is the Patriots bring in an undrafted free agent to preserve Brady’s arm and keep Mallet at back-up quarterback.

December 9, 2012; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; San Diego Chargers running back Jackie Battle (44) looks on from the sidelines against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the third quarter at Heinz Field. The San Diego Chargers won 34-24. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports


RUNNING BACK:

Running back is a position that the Patriots had identified as an area of future need two years ago and have a full stable of backs in lead back Steven Ridley, 3rd down/change-of-pace back Shane Vereen, back-up Brandon Bolden, and 3rd down depth in free-agent Leon Washington.  Expect an undrafted free agent to get a look, but otherwise a depth back fro training camp and insurance is the only likely signing.  The market is flooded with aging and unproven running backs with flaws.  Unfortunately, running back is a young man’s position, and once a back absorbs enough hits to lose that slightest bit of explosion, it can be the end of a career.  Looking at the names available, backs like Ahmed Bradshaw, Beanie Wells, Peyton Hillis, Bernard Scott, Michael Turner, Felix Jones, Cedric Benson, and Brandon Jacobs are likely going to be taking a one-year deal (if they even get an offer) at veteran’s minimum.  Any of them would worth bringing in to camp to take a look at, but with Ridley, Vereen, and Bolden entrenched at the top of the depth chart, getting carries in a talented and crowded backfield, let alone unseating them, is unlikely.

Instead, look for New England to look for a special teams player who can add value as a depth running back. Maybe a player like Jackie Battle, LaRod Stephens-Howling, or Javon Ringer would be worth bringing in cheap to compete for a spot in camp.

Dec 10, 2012; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots wide receiver Brandon Lloyd (85) recovers a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown against the Houston Texans during the fourth quarter at Gillette Stadium. The New England Patriots defeated the Houston Texans 42-14. Mandatory Credit: Michael Ivins-USA TODAY Sports


WIDE RECEIVER:

If there is a panic button in New England (other than tight end Rob Gronkowski’s forearm), it is the wide receiver position.  With the loss of wide receiver Wes Welker, the surprise release of Brandon Lloyd, and the uncertainty of the durability of free agent Danny Amendola, there is an undercurrent of panic seeping into the thoughts of the New England Patriots fan base.  Many mock drafts have the Patriots selecting a receiver in the first two rounds, but with the depth on the defensive line and secondary available in the draft, expect Bill Belichick and the front office to concentrate in those areas first before turning to offense, just like last season.

Like running back, wide receiver is a position of high turnover in the NFL.  With the complexities of the Patriots offensive system, the Patriots have been very deliberate in their selection of wide receivers.  Add in their being burnt on a regular basis in the draft at wide receiver, and the best option again appears to be to repeat last year and throw a number of veterans at the figurative wall in training camp and see who sticks or learns the offense enough to be on call for injury coverage.  Adding former Buffalo Bills wide receiver Donald Jones and former Minnesota Viking Michael Jenkins seems to fit that criteria, and other receivers on the free agent market who could get a job offer to come to camp include players like former Giant Ramses Barden, former Cardinals receiver Early Doucet, and former Colt Austin Collie.

Most likely to take place, however, would be an attempt to bring back receivers from last year at low cost on a short-term, team friendly deal.  Wide receivers Deion Branch and Donte Stallworth are likely already on standby for a phone call from Bill Belichick and prepared to go immediately for a veteran minimum contract and little warning.  Expect both Julian Edelman and Brandon Lloyd to ge–or have already received–team-friendly deals from the Patriots front-office to fall back on if no other interested suitor presents themselves on the free agent market. With each passing day, it makes the odds tilt in favor of the Patriots retaining Edelman and Lloyd for a fraction of the dollars each receiver anticipated receiving at the beginning of the off-season.  Other than swapping Amendola for Welker, the receiving corps may look very familiar to last year by the time September rolls around.

Sep 30, 2012; Orchard Park, NY, USA; New England Patriots tight end Daniel Fells (86) and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (47) in the game against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports


TIGHT END:

With returning starters Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski and depth players Daniel Fells, Michael Hoomanawanui and former Giant Jake Ballard, the position seems set. However, the report that Gronkowski “could” miss the start of the season, the brittleness of Hernandez, the question mark of Ballard’s health, and the high-cost (at least compared to the rest of the Patriots roster) of Hoomanawanui and Fells, this position could be in flux in training camp.  Of course, short of former Giants teammate Kevin Boss and former Patriots tight end David Thomas, most fans would hardly recognize many names of free agent tight ends besides former Colts stand-out Dallas Clark.  Veterans such as Washington’s Chris Cooley and former Dolphins and Chargers tight end Randy McMichael will be lucky to get an offer to camp.  The cupboard is fairly bare at tight end, so any addition would be coming via the draft, which is hardly overflowing with prospects at the position.  While the Patriots would look to upgrade the back-ups for Hernandez and Gronkowski in a heartbeat, the fact that they are keeping Fells and Hoomanawanui despite high (again, relative to the rest of the roster) cap numbers show what the opinion of available help is in New England.

July 26, 2012; Flowery Branch, GA, USA; Atlanta Falcons tackle Will Svitek (74) during training camp at the Atlanta Falcons Training Facility. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports


OFFENSIVE LINE–TACKLE:

The New England Patriots have struck twice in free agency at offensive tackle this off-season, inking their own free agent, Sebastian Vollmer, to a multi-year deal and also signing free agent and former Atlanta Falcons swing tackle Will Svitek as top back-up.  With tackle/guard Marcus Cannon able to flex out if necessary (and even center Nick McDonald having filled in at tackle in a pinch), there is some depth in place.  That said, the Patriots are always looking for affordable depth, and are constantly bringing in young offensive linemen to spend a summer at Camp Scarnecchia. With Svitek on board, the Patriots have a cheap, quality back-up as insurance.

The options in free agency would likely pass up an offer in New England with better options to play in other markets.  While many fans would love to have Tyson Clabo, Jared Gaither, or Eric Winston for depth in case of injury, the Patriots have struggled to have back-up offensive line veterans get through training camp without retiring (Robert Gallery, Kendall Simmons, etc), or have young, offensive line prospects clear waivers to get to the practice squad for seasoning (Ted Larsen, Thomas Welch, Corey Hilliard, and Ryan O’Callaghan).  In this case, expect Bill Belichick to find a late round or undrafted tackle to develop for 2015 rather than eat cap space on an aging offensive tackle unlikely to see many snaps.


OFFENSIVE LINE–GUARD/CENTER:

The Patriots had numerous injuries on the inside of the offensive line the last few years, and last year backup guard Donald Thomas started eight games and parlayed that into a 4-year $14 million contract with the Indianapolis Colts this off-season. With Thomas gone, the Patriots need a back-up guard they can count on for the offensive line.  Unfortunately, the available free agents are underwhelming.  The best option would be former Jets guard Brandon Moore, but again the price tag has to be in the Patriots range. I don’t see the Patriots spending more than a veteran’s minimum to bring in a Derrick Dockery, Jake Scott, or Leonard Davis.

More intriguing names in free agency for the Patriots are interior linemen with experience in the Dante Scarnecchia system who would be able to step in at training camp and provide depth. Former Patriots guard Russ Hochstein and center Dan Koppen are two free agents who jump off the page as possible fits in New England.  While doubtful that Koppen would return after being a final cut-down last summer and lacking the position flexibility to back-up at guard, Hochstein would be a cheap back-up. The 12 year guard has experience in New England and would be able to compete for a reserve role.

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